Shea Serrano never dreamed of being a writer. “I wanted to be a teacher, work at a Title I school, be a part of the community, work there for 30 years,” he says.
And yet, here he is, 8 years after deciding to try out this writing thing: a best-selling author with 74,000 Twitter followers. He’s both philosophical and practical about how he got here, too. “I want to take advantage while I can,” Shea says. “It’s not often you get the opportunities to work on things that you like to create and take care of your family. I’m just following my feet.”
Twitter—a medium at which he truly excels—certainly hasn’t hurt, though.
“I’m in Houston, a lot of other writers are in New York, L.A., other places,” Shea says. “I’m by myself anyway. Twitter is a good way for me to not be alone for a few minutes when I’m writing and stuck on something, or looking for new ideas.”
He built his following as a writer at Grantland (RIP), where he wrote about everything from Selena to celebrity NBA fans. And his distinctive style translates well to social media, albeit with fewer capital letters. So when he told his Twitter army that the book he wrote, The Rap Yearbook, was available for pre-order, they took it up as an underdog cause, flooding his mentions with screenshots of their purchases. Then they wiped out Barnes & Nobles’ stock. Then Books-A-Million’s. And there he was in The New York Times (along with his friend and illustrator, Arturo Torres), on a list that included Marie Kondo, Joel Osteen, and Charles G. Koch.
His next venture is a book about basketball, but in the meantime, he’s doing a weekly newsletter called Basketball And Other Things, accompanied by Torres’ drawings. It comes out on Tuesdays, and the “and other things” are all over the map. A recent issue was about Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, for example. The one before that imagined _The Purge_ featuring NBA players. (Shea doesn’t think Steph Curry would survive Purge Night, by the way.)
“The newsletter is a way to test out what works, what doesn’t work. I can put extra stuff in there,” he says. “Stuff that doesn’t make sense in the book. And it’s practice to make sure I’m writing.”
The typical open rate for Mailchimp newsletters in the sports industry hovers around 26%. Given his devoted fanbase, perhaps it’s unsurprising that B(AOT)’s open rate is a rather stunning 77%.
Shea’s big on community and vocal about supporting stuff he loves—and his fans have taken that up as a cause as well. Following the first newsletter, he got an offer from a fan to pay him for it. After the second issue, even more offers started pouring in. Some of his fans even tried to trick him by buying bookmarks he was selling and sending too much money. He’d trick them back by refunding the full amount and sending the bookmark anyway.
“The best way to support people who make stuff you love is to pay them,” Shea says. “But at the same time, it seems like it makes it less cool for me. My whole reason for doing this is to do cool stuff. It doesn’t work if there’s an ad for WingStop.”
As a compromise, he agreed to accept donations for one day. He added a button to his newsletter with the call to action “Ultralight Beam” and the promise that, “You can receive B(AOT) into your inbox and then absorb it into your existence for exactly $0 forever.” He also said that he and Torres would pile up the money and burn it a’la The Joker in The Dark Knight, but that was probably a joke.
Donations poured in—more than $4,000 total. (He gave $1,600 to Torres and $2,700 to a women’s shelter.) Then he took it down and refused to accept any money that rolled in afterward. He’s posted screenshots of PayPal refunds, one with an exhortation for the guy to spend it on tacos.